DALLAS – It won’t generate nearly as much buzz as that other rivalry matchup in the NCAA Tournament 2 years ago.

Neither coach is a retiring legend. It’s in the Elite Eight, not the Final Four. And instead of 2 blue-bloods playing for a shot at a national title, 1 of the participants has a bright shade of red flowing through its veins.

But to folks back home in North Carolina, particularly those around the Eastern-most point of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle, Sunday’s South Region championship showdown between Duke and NC State at American Airlines Center is every bit as epic, every bit as emotional and every bit as significant as that memorable 2022 Final Four encounter between the Blue Devils and North Carolina.

If not more so because of who’s involved and what’s at stake.

If that 2022 clash of titans was considered to be the end of the basketball world as we know it, at least in Central North Carolina, then call this one The Apocalypse Strikes Back.

Duke and UNC were already considered the gold standard of college basketball when they met in New Orleans, with a rivalry that has a catchy nickname and more national attention than even Caitlin Clark.
State, on the other hand, has been their 3rd wheel for decades. The Pack have been that pesky kid brother who always wants to tag along when his older siblings do something fun.

But now the 11th-seeded Wolfpack find themselves in a position to change the narrative and accomplish something even more important than just a trip to the Final Four for the first time since their school’s magical run to the championship in 1983 by stealing back more than just a small sliver of the spotlight from their more recognized neighbors.

“It’s essential for State to build on this,” senior wing Casey Morsell said Saturday. “We have a lot more basketball to play, but it’s important to use this as a stepping stone to elevate the program.”

State’s climb toward college basketball’s high-rent district still boggles the mind considering where it was just 3 weeks ago.

Forget stepping stones.

The Wolfpack was on the express elevator to rock bottom after losing 4 straight and finishing the regular-season with 10 losses in their final 14 games.

But that’s ancient history now.

After 8 straight wins, including 1 each against Duke and UNC, State has become the feel-good story of the postseason, and coach Kevin Keatts has gone from the hot seat to the brink of having a statue built in his honor in front of Reynolds Coliseum.

Keatts insisted Saturday that he’s never wanted his program to be compared to either of its 2 biggest rivals.

“We do things a little different,” he said.

Fair or not, though, State will always be judged by how it does compared to the accomplishments of Blue Devils and Tar Heels.

But the Wolfpack won’t be the only one looking to emerge from an immense shadow to carve out a niche of their own in Sunday’s game.

For Duke’s Jon Scheyer, avenging the recent loss to State in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals and being the last Triangle team standing would go a long way toward erasing the memory of last year’s early NCAA exit — and make him a Final Four coach in his own right.

And not just the young buck who was in the right place at the right time to replace coach Mike Krzyzewski.

But that’s something for the fans to discuss and debate. As is the fact that the teams are located no more than 30 miles apart and have already played twice in the past month, with each winning once.

Or that the reward for Sunday’s rubber match is a trip to Arizona to play on the sport’s biggest stage next week.

Duke is a 6.5-point favorite, according to ESPN BET sportsbook.

“You have to put it all aside and focus on what you need to do to win an Elite Eight game,” Scheyer said. “You want to take advantage of the opportunity when you are here.”

The Wolfpack took advantage of their opportunity the last time these teams met, in Washington DC on March 14. It was the 3rd of their 5 straight wins in as many days to win the ACC Tournament and secure their NCAA bid.

Now it’s Duke’s turn.

After losing to UNC as the favorite in that Final Four clash 2 years ago, the lead thing the Blue Devils need is to suffer another high-profile embarrassment at the hands of a rival. Especially one perceived to be of lesser stature.

Duke’s players were already talking about their shot at redemption by the time they returned to their locker room following Friday’s region semifinal win against top-seeded Houston.

“It’s kind of weird,” forward Mark Mitchell said. “Since we lost to NC State, we’ve been cheering them on a little bit, just because you naturally cheer for the team that beat you. But now it’s come full circle in this moment that we get to play them again. It should be fun. It should be a battle.”

Duke and UNC have had more than their share of these kinds of showdowns. It seems as though they happen every year. Sunday afternoon, as Wolfpack star DJ Burns put it, the kid brother will finally get his shot to “crash the party.”

And it promises to be every bit as epic, emotional and significant as any battle of the blues.